The ‘do or die’ primary

MARCI McDONALD February 22 1988

The ‘do or die’ primary

MARCI McDONALD February 22 1988

The ‘do or die’ primary


It was a rare display of emotion by a presidential candidate who had just been characterized by a political rival as a bloodless technocrat.

Campaigning in Manchester, N.H., Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts—the leading Democrat in this week’s pivotal first presidential primary—dropped by Dimitrios Bakolas’s corner grocery store. There—amid shelves jammed with feta cheese and retsina wine—Dukakis visibly fought off his feelings as he reminisced about how his father had come to that same street from Greece 76 years ago, an immigrant boy of 15 armed only with a few words of English and $25. He recalled how eight years later, after toiling in nearby textile mills, his father— who died in 1977—had earned his way into Harvard Medical School, where he won his degree in obstetric medicine. Further down the block at the Barba Costas Coffee House, Dukakis said: “I wish my Dad could be here. He would be so proud. To think he came to this neighborhood and gave me the opportunities I have—to be the governor of a state and a serious candidate for the presidency. Folks, it’s quite a country.”

It was a testimonial that has become an essential part of Dukakis’s basic stump message. Determination and tough choices can rebuild the country’s declining economic fortunes, he says. In that way he has built Massachusetts’ floundering economy into a showcase of high-tech industry and low unemployment, he added. “That’s the kind of America we want,” he tells each audience. “An America where every citizen who works hard and plays by the rules is a full shareholder in the American dream.”

Last week Dukakis was delivering that message with increased urgency as the chaotic seven-man Democratic presidential race turned into another classic American drama—a battle for political survival. Indeed, for both the Democratic and Republican contenders, New Hampshire was shaping into a decisive contest that would fulfil some dreams and irretrievably dash others.

Fresh from the Feb. 8 Iowa caucuses, where he had finished a disappointing third, Dukakis found himself pitted against an opponent whose personal style and prescription for boosting the

U.S. economy were in direct contrast to his own. Battling it out for first place in New Hampshire with dark and diminutive Dukakis was Missouri Representative Richard Gephardt, whose blond, allAmerican looks and import-bashing rhetoric had just won him victory in the first major contest of the gruelling presi-

dential nominating process. Gephardt’s tough protectionist stance had helped him gather 31 per cent of the Iowa caucus votes for the Democrats, followed by Senator Paul Simon of Illinois with 27 per cent. Heading into New Hampshire, both Gephardt and Simon had run out of campaign funds—and had been forced to borrow to pay for their television commercials. But Gephardt’s success in Iowa had already boosted him six points ahead of Simon in a New Hampshire poll, and analysts were declaring it a straight Gephardt-Dukakis contest.

That contest was very much a war of conflicting trade philosophies. Gephardt repeated his populist call for retaliatory duties against foreign nations whose unfair trade practices kept U.S. goods out. At the same time, Dukakis warned that such tactics could set off an international trade war “that would devastate our

economy.” Said Dukakis: “We are an exporting nation. I don’t want us to be circling the wagons and throwing up walls.” For Dukakis, the contest was crucial. Despite his $22-million campaign chest, he conceded that, unless he scored a decisive win in his native New England, his campaign would lack the credibility to go on to next month’s critical 20-state primary in the South, where he remains a largely unknown and alien commodity. Said one Dukakis aide: “This has become a do-or-die proposition.”

A similar air of now or never hung over

the Republican primary battle, with Vice-President George Bush fighting for his political life. The stunning upset scored by former television evangelist Pat Robertson in Iowa the previous week had pushed Bush to a third-place finish, 18 points behind the winner, Senator Robert Dole of Kansas. And that had, in turn, sapped Bush’s longtime lead in the New Hampshire polls. Within two days of the Iowa vote, the vice-president had slipped 10 points, turning the primary into a tight race with Dole. Then, just before the primary, former secretary of state Alexander Haig pulled out of the race for the Republican nomination, throwing his support behind Dole, who, he said, was “head and shoulders above Bush.” And by last Saturday Dole was

leading for the first time in a national CBS poll. Said William Schneider of the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute: “Bush is mortally wounded. If he can’t win in New Hampshire, he’s dead meat.”

Bush attempted to fight back by stealing the campaign slogan that Midwesterner Dole had used with success in Iowa—“He’s one of us.” Laying aside his claims to being a transplanted Texan, the vice-president traded on his birth in Massachusetts, his Connecticut upbringing and his summer home in nearby

Maine and told New Hampshire voters, “I’m one of you.” But the line evoked mixed responses. Wrote Boston Globe columnist Robert Turner: “Having failed to define himself as Reagan’s copilot and heir, he is again identifying himself in comparison with someone else.”

Bush’s task was further complicated by what one election expert called “The X-Factor”—the possibility that Robertson might repeat his Iowa success, where he won 25 per cent of the vote. Although New Hampshire has far fewer evangelical Christians, a Boston Globe survey found that many of them who had not originally planned to vote for Robertson had changed their minds after Iowa. To widen his appeal, his staff mailed a 30minute Robertson audio cassette entitled

“What I Would Do as President” to the state’s 170,000 registered Republicans. Indeed, Robertson argued that he alone boasted enough strength in the South to win the March 8 “Super Tuesday” multiple primary in the region. Said Robertson: “I am the only conservative with enough national support in all of the states to be a winner.”

Meanwhile, in the parallel battle for the Democratic vote, friends, family and supporters of Gov. Dukakis were professing amazement over the media’s portrait of him as a cool and remote figure.

Seizing on that image, Simon last week branded Dukakis “a manager, a technocrat.” But the governor’s stepson John— a 29-year-old former actor who has appeared in the television series Family Ties and now manages his father’s southern campaign—said that he was dumbfounded at the characterization. “I just can’t understand it,” he said. “I know him as a very emotional man.” Indeed, Dukakis wept openly at a news conference last summer when his wife, Kitty, admitted that until 1982 she had suffered from a 26-year addiction to diet pills.

Still, aides have had a hard time boosting the charisma quotient of a quiet family man, the father of three, who likes nothing better than to whip up a turkey tetrazzini dinner and tend the tomato plants in his garden. As governor, Dukakis frequently rides the subway to the statehouse from the modest brick duplex in a Boston suburb. And he boasts that he even does the family washing. “I’m a modern husband,” he said. That distinction won him top marks among candidates on women’s issues in this month’s Ms. magazine. And to further lighten his image, he has been out on the campaign trail with film star Richard Gere.

As U.S. economic indicators have worsened over the past three months, Dukakis’s trump card remains an issue that has only lately gained greater political appeal: the success of the Massachusetts economy. After inheriting a state that he called an economic “basket case”—with the second-highest U.S. unemployment rate and a record $635-million deficit in 1975—Dukakis helped create 170,000 new jobs and a $254-million budget surplus four years later. Critics say that the turnaround owes more to a massive influx of high-tech and defence contractors than to the governor’s policies. But Dukakis argues that only five per cent of the state’s new jobs are defence-related. And last week he went campaigning with high-tech billionaire An Wang—a Chinese immigrant who says that he set up the headquarters of his Wang Laboratories in the blighted city of Lowell because of the governor’s policies. Flanking Wang was a former welfare mother who graduated from the state’s model employment training program and now earns $24,000 a year as a secretary.

Dukakis hailed them as embodiments of the same American dream that lured his father to New England. But some analysts questioned whether the managerial success story of a northeastern liberal—with a name, as Dukakis likes to joke, “like the bottom line of the eye chart”—will sell next month in the conservative South.

— MARCI McDONALD in Manchester